six disruptive trends in architectural lighting

welcome to the luminous ‘20s

The past decade saw incredible transformation in architectural lighting.  LEDs and digital controls completely disrupted decades-old technology paradigms.

Yet the transformation to LED technology was so drastic, most manufacturers could barely keep up. Playing it safe, the lighting industry spent the past decade merely “LEDifying” tired old commodity fixture styles. In the end, ironically, the LED revolution led to little actual application-level innovation on commercial projects.

Facing the turn of a new decade, another disruptive wave of innovation awaits, but this time building upon mature LED and digital communications technologies.  Let’s look at how 6 disruptive trends will change how we conceive of architectural lighting:

Editor’s Note: You can watch Brad Koerner’s presentation of “6 Disruptive Trends…” from Memoori’s Smart Building Series in the video below. The original article follows.

1: Luminous Surfaces

Embedded lighting and digital signage become fundamental elements of contemporary buildings

LED technology now allows us to integrate lighting directly into a wall or ceiling surface, with little energy consumption, heat, or maintenance to worry about.  This fusion of light + material, of embedding lighting elements directly into architectural surfaces, opens fresh new approaches to creating eye-catching spatial experiences.

Play of Brilliants

Architects and interior designers have long tried to break free from the constraints of traditional light fixtures, to use light as a form of fundamental building material to add visual richness to architectural surfaces.  Fusing the best properties of luminosity, optical effects, material richness and graphic design, embedded lighting opens tremendous creative opportunities.  Luminous surfaces will change the way people perceive, occupy and enjoy architectural spaces, particularly in hospitality, retail, and public applications.

Embedded Lighting Systems

Custom integration of embedded lighting has been difficult to specify and costly to install on construction projects, limiting broader adoption.  While designers explore the creative possibilities of embedded patterns and surfaces of light, manufacturers need to develop flexible and customized product systems that accommodate an enormous range of creative styles, along with digital technologies to speed the design, visualization and fabrication processes.


Digital controls add the element of time and animation to architectural surfaces.  People are mesmerized by the beauty of light in motion; we are hard-wired in our brains to seek visual stimulation to refresh ourselves. As architecture becomes fully digitally controllable, with every point of light addressable as a sort of pixel, custom tailored dynamic animations ranging from the subtle flicker of a candle to sparkling effects to vivid ripples of movement will become common.

Digital Signage

Beyond using luminous surfaces for general illumination, digital signage systems will be included in architectural spaces with tighter integration of design concept.

Digital signage is already becoming pervasive in architectural environments with widespread adoption in out-of-home marketing, wayfinding, menu systems, and retail branding.  The steadily dropping cost of digital screens and cloud-based content distribution makes digital signage highly appealing to brands and organizations looking to quickly inject more “digital” into their physical locations.

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However, there is a big problem with digital signage:  People quickly burn-out on flashy-flashy-winky-blinky screens.  Even though digital signage is just starting to be widely integrated into our built environments, people are already overloaded and desensitized to evermore screen time.  The content becomes irrelevant:  No matter how gorgeous the imagery, how elaborate the video editing, how slick the motion graphics – it all just becomes visual “noise” that people tune out. 

Across the next decade, design professionals need to become savvy on integrating both luminous surfaces and digital signage into comprehensive environmental experiences.  Architectural- or even urban-scale compositions can be created using digital lighting/pixels/screens of various proportions, scales and resolution with mixed visual acuity.  Designers will develop sophisticated strategies to break the scale and proportions commonly associated with “screens” and to layer luminous surfaces to create rich spatial and visually healthy experiences.

Content is King

Architectural lighting designers must become motion artists.  No longer can architectural lighting be considered the magnificent play of volumes brought together in light when the volumes themselves now emit light…and so much more.  When every point of light in a building is effectively a digital pixel, designers need to create continuous fluid visual experiences.  The concept of editing “timelines” at different scales becomes a critical skill, ranging from short term personal experiences, to daily cyclic patterns, to seasonal cyclic patterns.

Healthy Interior Lighting

Whatever you call it – circadian lighting, human-centered lighting, melanopic response – the implementation of “healthy” interior lighting will be largely implemented through luminous surfaces.  Why?  Because the old fixture paradigms from the 1960’s are ill equipped to provide not only the scientific quantities of the right light at the right time, but they are woefully unable to create great psychological experiences for inhabitants spending long hours in enclosed spaces.

The layering of luminosity, at far greater contrast levels than designers are accustomed to in interior environments, plus the inclusion of highly dynamic scene changes tailored for maximum biological and psychological response, will be critical concepts that architects, interior designers and lighting designers will need to embrace and explore throughout all the other aspects of their designs.

Impact on Design

The inclusion of luminous surfaces begs for comprehensive design to create a unified experience for the occupants of a space.  This will drive architects, interior and lighting designers to embrace a raft of new digital tools, such as using live-rendered photo-realistic game engines, VR experiences, video editing, motion graphics, etc. throughout their design development process.

Designers will need to visualize, simulate and craft not only simple luminous surfaces, but dynamic surfaces that interconnect the digital world with the occupants of the space.

2: Data-Driven Experiences

Architecture will increasingly be treated as a portal to the virtual world

We are entering a future where architectural design and its associated technology systems are more than ever focused on experience management as the primary end goal of many projects.  Architectural technology systems, such as digital lighting, digital media, and IoT-based communications systems are driving this digital transformation of physical space.

No longer can traditional architectural technology systems remain as discrete, specialty trades.  This is especially true for architectural lighting, where outdated preset scene control systems must transform into comprehensive experience management systems.  What we presently call lighting controls will be subsumed into two primary styles of technical solutions:

  1. Media-Driven Branded Experiences
  2. Data-Driven Environmental Optimization

Such a transformation will have profound influences on how bricks and mortar spaces are conceived and designed by architects, interior designers, brand designers, etc.

The Old World

For decades, traditional preset-scene lighting control systems have dominated the options available for architectural projects.  Dimmers or relay switches controlling “dumb” lamps were set at certain levels and recorded as stagnant scenes.  End users were left with clusters of anonymous little buttons programmed with scenes that never seem to do what anybody actual wants. It should be readily apparent how unprepared such systems are for the digital transformation of architectural experiences.

The New World

The role of the built environment is changing in two dramatic ways that render the crudeness of preset-scene systems incapable of responding: Media-driven and data-driven experiences.

1: Media-Driven Branded Experiences

The intention of many built environments (e.g., retail, hospitality, corporate lobbies, etc.) is first and foremost to create a branded experience.  And it is impossible in our modern age to conceive of branded experiences without a strong digital presence in content and interactivity.  Architectural spaces are becoming portals to the virtual world.  The technical challenge in these spaces is to control a range of digital media – “pixels” of various sorts, from 4K screens to projection mapping to simple digitally-controlled light fixtures.

While traditional architectural lighting controls are wholly unsuited for distributing, playing and managing modern digital media, the digital signage world has filled the gap with cloud-connected, low-cost systems expressly for distributing and playing media files on an range of equipment.  For example, a modern 4K digital media player, priced for only a few hundred dollars, has effectively 24 million channels of lighting control (3 channels for every RGB pixel in a 4K screen) – and that is just one single screen location, with these systems capable of handling hundreds.

2: Data-Driven Environmental Optimization

For environments that are not primarily branded experiences (e.g., commercial offices, institutional facilities, industrial sites, etc.), environmental optimization based on live data becomes the imperative.  And stagnant, pre-configured scenes are simply not precise enough to satisfy modern demands for climate control, energy efficiency, and creating functionally efficient spaces for the occupants.  We now have networks of IoT-connected sensors generating massive live-data streams.  Plus, numerous other live data streams such as weather, operational conditions, stock market fluctuations, social media engagement, etc. can provide live input to our environments.  We need systems that take these live data streams and logically translate them across a range of environmental parameters.  Such translation must be smooth, continuous, and employ learning loops (e.g. “A.I.”) to ensure that as a building ages, the live systems remain optimized.

Impact on Design

Spaces need to be conceived from the very initial sketches as live, responsive environments, not lumps of steel, concrete and glass bathed in some stagnant conception of light.  Architects and interior designers need to understand the powerful potential of these new systems for branded experience control or optimized environmental control and start conceiving of new programmatic goals that fully exploit their potential.

And once data-driven lighting becomes the norm, designers can then look more closely at the personal scale of interactions within a space.

3: Interactive Spaces

The right light, at the right time, at the right place

The concept of interactive lighting – where dynamic lighting or A/V gear responds to a user’s touch, proximity or other activity – has held the promise of creating highly personal and dynamic architectural experiences for several decades, but adoption has been mostly limited to singular art installations.

Me and My Shadow

One of the biggest challenges with interactive lighting is overcoming the most simplistic yet common interactive setup that we can call the me and my shadow scenario: Many interactive installations do nothing more than mirror someone’s presence, expressed such as through live shadow outlines of the person’s form, or glowing light blobs, or more decorative effects like sparkles or waves that track along with someone.  Whatever style, it is still fundamentally the same thing, a 1-to-1 reflection of your presence. But how does this create any more meaningful impact than staring at your own shadow on a sunny day? The effect doesn’t do anything to re-inform or alter the person’s activities in the space.   After the first razzle-dazzle experience, it is easily ignored.

So Why Implement Interactive Lighting?

What modalities of interaction will actually enrich an architectural space? There are at least three possibilities:

  • Deliver function: The correct type of light, at the correct place, at the correct moment in time.
  • Deliver delight: Enriching human interactions and creating distinct, memorable moments
  • Deliver content: Architecture can act as a portal to the digital world, providing either ambient or detailed layers of information

These 3 interactions can then be mapped across applications, such as hospitality, retail, office, healthcare, education, public spaces, etc. Within each application, multiple physical interactions can be explored to deliver the 3 primary modalities, including:

  • Touch (poking, grabbing, twisting, touching, etc.)
  • Occupancy (passive detection of movement in a space)
  • Proximity (distance from an object/sensor point)
  • Tracking (tracking multiple people in a space, gaze detection, gesturing)
  • Identity (Bluetooth beacons, RFID chips, NFC)

Impact on Design

Designers must move beyond document-based design and specification workflows.  Architectural designers will increasingly adopt the tools, techniques and language of UX design professionals.  In the early stages of concept design, storyboarding must be routinely included to sketch out key dynamic scenarios in spaces.  Designers will innovate their own tools, such as using low-cost computing ecosystems like Arduino and Raspberry Pi to create mockups and live models of interactive spaces. 

As interactive concepts become more commonplace and grow to large-scale installations, live-rendered, fully functional virtual models integrated into BIM workflows will be required to visualize, simulate and develop the functionality of the final space programming. 

4: Digital Twin Commissioning

Live simulations in BIM will reduce onsite commissioning costs

Yah right!  So we’re adding highly customized luminous digital surfaces, controlled via complex live data and media streams and tuned to a space via sophisticated interactive control systems.  This will all just be “value-engineered” straight off the project, right?  The commissioning costs alone are inconceivable.


Project teams can’t keep sandbagging digital systems in architectural construction projects as outlandish non-essential budget line-items. Digital technologies in the built environment drive very real end customer value. Yet for sure, construction sites are the absolute most expensive place imaginable to attempt flaky digital R&D projects with unknown risk factors, exotic consultants and expensive systems integrators. So how do we overcome this mess?

To satisfy clients’ endless appetites for integrating digital sophistication into construction projects, project teams must focus on using simulation and cloud-based commissioning tools which will greatly reduce the costs associated with commissioning lighting or media systems.

Digital Twin Simulation

Cloud-based lighting systems will increasingly integrate directly into architects’ BIM-based design, simulation and specification workflow.   Architectural design and MEP workflows already use highly detailed BIM models that live in the cloud.  Connected lighting systems are fundamentally connected to the “cloud”.  Lighting companies focusing on system integration should develop BIM plug-ins that allow specifiers to setup proper BIM-based virtual models of the total lighting system (fixtures + controls + functionality), eliminating the need to translate the “design intent” of the lighting control system via traditional paper documentation and field commissioning.

Plus the virtual simulations made easy by BIM will also evolve and directly correlate to the actual performance of the building, which will prove critical for meeting ever more stringent “green” building codes.

Digital Twin Commissioning

If your digital twin BIM-model lives in the cloud and your whole lighting system is cloud-connected, simply connect the lighting system to the cloud and voilà – the virtual model can instantly control the real lighting hardware. 

Final programming will be transferred via the BIM/cloud model directly to the hardware onsite, reducing on-site commissioning and if done correctly, ensuring the designer’s vision is not broken during construction setup.

Skipping the majority of the translation process leads to enormous cost savings on construction sites.  The lighting controls segment of the industry desperately needs to move beyond “document based” specification, procurement and site-coordination.  

Impact on Design

Implicit in this future is the fact that the process of commissioning largely transfers from systems integrators to design consultants.  Overall, the process is more efficient, but this still represents a large transfer of project budgets from the construction team to the design team.  Designers need to properly understand this new revenue opportunity and find ways to convince clients of the value.

Furthermore, the completeness and accuracy of digital-twin model becomes a valuable asset in itself that can be utilized for novel future revenue streams, such as concepts embodied in the circular economy movement.

5: Circular Economy

New value streams will be realized by cleaning up our act

The “circular economy” is a movement to stop the industrialized world’s bad habit of “take-make-waste” and instead to create endless circular flows of materials.  The Circular Economy is effectively a very sophisticated strategy for “recycling”, but instead of the wimpy recycling approaches most consumers know, circular economy strategists are trying to create real, extensive, and highly profitable flows of products, parts, and materials in endless loops. To achieve this vision, it takes coordinated effort to rethink product design, business models, and market processes.  So how will the lighting industry adapt to such a future?

The Return of Commonsense

Lighting fixtures have long been durable goods; lighting sources, on the other hand, have inherently been constructed as expendable, disposable items.  The current and extremely lazy trend in the lighting industry for producing “disposable fixtures” simply cannot be sustained.  Customers cannot bear the long-term maintenance headaches of such short-term, wretched product management, nor can the environment.  Standards programs like the Zhaga Consortium are still critical to enabling the repair and reuse of durable fixtures long into the future.  If you can repair a device, you keep it from having to be disposed of (or broken down into its constituent parts), a basic tenet to the Circular Economy.

And guess what?  Repairing and maintaining commercial devices is also known as a revenue stream.  Something that penny-wise and pound-foolish lighting product managers might want to consider.

Here’s a basic but most miserable question to challenge any lighting manufacturer:  If in ten years you received your products back to your loading docks, would they be considered financial assets or liabilities???

Smart Maintenance Programs

IP-connected lighting systems greatly expand the range of data available.  “Smart” controls and lighting fixtures broadcast their component serial numbers, feature sets, on-board sensors, run time counters, and even real-time photometric light measurement.   Talk about “big data”:  A lighting manufacturer can now remotely check in on their systems anytime, anywhere.

For example, a manufacturer might automatically see that a fixture is over temp and losing light output in one of their customer’s facilities, and they will automatically query the exact set of parts that need to be replaced.  Such data drastically reduces the cost of lighting maintenance.  A service agent will show up with the right parts and immediately take care of the problem – potentially before an end user even recognizes that there is a problem.

Providing a cloud-connection for lighting systems is a “gateway drug” to opening up numerous opportunities for maintenance, upgrades, or circular economy opportunities.  The lighting industry has the opportunity to offer much high levels of customer service at lower costs than ever before…but who in the industry captures this value?

Bio-Friendly Materials

LED systems pushing 200 lm/w efficacy effectively eliminate the problem of excess heat and fire hazard in most fixture types.  DC power can also simplify fixture design:  If the fixture has only low-power, low-voltage, current-controlled connections, the safety requirements stemming around high voltage and high power can be reduced to the SELV standard.  The new world of low power and non-existent thermal issues opens up opportunities for the radical redesign of traditional fixture paradigms and material selections.   Manufacturers will use innovative bio-based materials to dramatically reduce the embodied energy, reduce toxicity and reduce both production and EOL disassembly costs to create a fixture that is ready for the circular economy.

These are straight forward product design concepts to implement for a wide range of common fixture styles. The hiccup going into the next decade?  Lighting safety standards were developed when light sources were hot, dangerous, fragile and driven by high-power AC electricity.  If none of those apply anymore, the safety standards need gross revision.  For too long safety standards have simply traded immediate liability of fire risk for long term cancer risk via a variety of toxic flame-retardant materials.

Disposable Lamps & Fixtures

On the other side of the coin from durable, maintainable fixtures, there are many lighting applications where basic LED technology outlives the application life (such as consumer lighting, fashion retail, restaurants, etc.).  So why are we designing all lighting products to the same standards, using the same expensive materials?  We will see a growing trend for designing biodegradable fixtures that minimize their material use and simply compost into dirt at end of life.  Imagine a classic A-lamp:  The LED and driver are miniaturized into an assembly the size of a vitamin pill and the rest of the bulb could be readily built out of biodegradable materials.  And it is conceivable that even the light engine might simply biodegrade, too, with electronic circuits that simply dissolve into healthy minerals and maybe even organic-based LED compounds.

Beautiful Factories

What is more sustainable:  Aluminum or wood?  An argument can be made for either:  Aluminum, once produced, can be recycled endlessly without degradation.  Wood loses value each time it is processed.  Yet the question becomes far more personal when phrased as such:  Would you and your family be willing to live next to any part of the supply chain?  Would you live next to an open-pit mine with its toxic tailing ponds or a forest?  A smelting plant with its belching smokestacks or a sawmill?  An anodization plant with all its toxic chemicals or a woodshop?

So why do lighting designers keep specifying such toxic, energy intensive materials in their products?  Why are they accepting products that have no hope of even basic maintenance, much more reusability in the future?

Impact on Design

Designers specify the future. But WHICH future are you currently specifying?  Are you proud of the supply chains that support your product selections?  The lighting industry needs to take responsibility for the future it is sowing today. 

And designers need to think holistically about their projects.  Does it do any good to have amazing bio-friendly light fixtures that are drawing their power downwind of a coal-based powerplant?  Project teams must take full responsibility for the inputs and outputs of their individual buildings.

6: DC Power & Net-Zero Energy

Buildings will increasingly go off-grid

Do you know why you must lug around all those chargers for your smartphones, tablets and laptops?  Why every “smart” device in your home or office requires some big, obnoxious power brick?  Why the solar panels on your roof require some giant inverter box in your garage?

It’s because every digital device in our modern world runs on DC (direct-current) electricity, while our ancient electric utility grids and the wiring infrastructure in our buildings remain stuck using AC (alternating-current).  Every time you plug a power converter into those ancient AC-grids, you are wasting electricity.  Ever notice how hot those power converters get?  That is your electricity, money and planet being squandered as waste heat.

Commercial Buildings are all DC

Almost every device in a modern building or home uses DC, including LED lighting, sensors, computers, IT networking and even large motors (variable-speed heat pumps and air conditioners).  Literally thousands of devices in even modest sized commercial or multi-unit residential buildings require these wasteful power converters.   And to compound this huge disconnect between our AC electrical grids and our DC building infrastructures, we are now adding huge quantities of DC-generating solar panels and DC-based battery storage to make our buildings net-zero energy consumers.  The cost of onsite solar PV generation has dropped to the point of grid parity – or cheaper – meaning that in many cases it is cheaper for a building owner to generate their own DC power rather than to buy AC power from a utility company.  And the cost of onsite battery storage continues to drop, bridging the gap between the peaks and troughs of generation and consumption. 

Here is the shocking number:  Researchers estimate that commercial buildings save 15% of their total power by skipping wasteful DC-AC-DC conversions.  Why is 15% such a big deal?  Because it is estimated that commercial and residential buildings consume 40% of the total energy used in the United States.

Batteries Sold Separately

Modern buildings going forward will only need extra power from the grid for small durations of the year, such as during the coldest, darkest part of the winter in Northern climates.  The rest of the year, buildings will run almost entirely on internal flows of DC power.  We are at the inflection point of a new revolution: DC-power “nanogrids” are set to replace the AC-infrastructure in many, if not most, commercial buildings, resulting in massive energy savings while reducing hardware and providing advanced digital control of power.

Early pilot projects show tremendous promise for the DC power revolution.  To throw fuel on the fire, the USGBC just added substantial bonus points for including DC power systems in its LEED green building certification program.

With DC power, we can reduce power waste substantially, reduce electronic hardware and associated maintenance & e-waste issues, and open the door to advanced energy management in buildings.  Advanced DC-based technologies like solid-state switching and solid-state fault interruption promise to channel, manage and measure power with more precision than ever before.

Impact on Design

As we move towards greater numbers of net-zero energy buildings and demand more localized energy resiliency in ever more turbulent times, a most interesting revolution is poised to transform our electrical infrastructure.  DC power systems will increasingly reduce the costs associated of evermore advanced architectural systems.  From the earliest stages of conceiving a building, solar power must be fundamentally included with as much capacity as possible.  Digital twin simulations in the energy performance of a building, starting at even the earliest schematic design stages, will predict long term energy performance of those systems and directly lead to highly tailored electrical infrastructures.

Conclusion: The Year 2030

By the year 2030, what we call “architectural lighting” will increasingly consist of embedded luminous surfaces, rich with digital content, smartly driven by data streams and responsive to our physical actions and biological needs in a space.  Designers (architects, interior designers, lighting designers, etc.) will increasingly need to become experience designers, using scripting, storyboarding and digital-twin simulations to craft live, responsive new experiential concepts for guests, shoppers, patients, employees, and so forth.

Despite growing system complexity, project coordination and on-site installation costs will be reduced via digital-twin, cloud-connected commissioning and sophisticated integration of BIM processes.  And these projects will use DC-power systems to reduce the consumption and cost of all these digital systems while making our buildings net-zero energy consumers.  The physical hardware of lighting systems will be designed to maximize new revenue streams opened by circular economy strategies, while simultaneously reducing our environmental impact.

The Roaring ‘20s indeed look to be a brilliant decade for innovation in architectural lighting systems.  


Brad Koerner is a creative leader in the application of advanced technologies in architectural systems. Brad is currently the VP of Product Development, Marketing and Innovation at Cima, an architectural signage and lighting company. Brad previously spent 20+ years in the architectural lighting industry, where he developed award-winning architectural lighting projects as well as industry-leading LED lighting and control technologies.